Growing up I didn’t own a lot of games, which in retrospect made a lot of sense (family short of a few quid, Blockbuster around the corner, why buy games?) but I made a strong case for owning Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System. I had to wait until Christmas 1991 (a full two months after its release) but it was completely worth it. Sonic gave Sega a whole new lease of life and it was a pleasure to recently speak to (CEO of Sega of America at the time) Tom Kalinske, especially knowing if it wasn’t for him and his team an important part of my life would never have happened.
For many it was Mario, or Zelda, or 16-bit Sonic. For me it was all about 8-bit Sonic. Until that point the only games I had were Galaxy Force and Ghostbusters, admittedly not much to beat but Sonic did it. And how.
Even before their heyday, Sega were cleverer than many gave them credit for. Their stance of making different versions of the same franchise on the 16-bit and the 8-bit made complete sense (see Alien Storm as a prime example) and if they’d try to recreate the 16-bit Sonic here it would surely have failed (see the NES knock-off as proof). Green Hill zone, tick. Labyrinth zone, tick. But instead of the Spring Yard and Marble zones we have the amazing Bridge and Jungle zones.
From the moment the game starts you know something special is about to happen (not as if you’ve much time to think about it). The action begins and it’s fast. It’s damn fast. The backgrounds are bare, true, but so are most 8-bit games. It’s what’s in the foreground that counts and that’s here you see our Sonic. In his bright blue, beautifully crafted, beautifully animated 8-bit body. I’d never seen an 8-bit sprite that looked that pretty before, and my how he moved.
Sonic is still the prettiest game I’ve seen on the MS – a full three years before it became fully defunct in Europe. The foreground platform sprites are sharp and the water effects are simple yet effective. And it’s not as if the same tiles are used over and over (a classic space saver), here we’ve all manner of things from bricks to grass to logs to marble tiles, the list goes on and on. The enemy sprites admittedly take a little bit of the memory hit but then there’s Robotnik. That damn Robotnik. With us ugly fat face and ugly fat flying blimpy thing he still haunts my dreams. Such simple design (from the 16-bit) transposed so excellently to the 8-bit.
I defy anyone to feel sad listening to the in-game tunes. It’s impossible to not feel chipper whilst playing this game. What they’ve done with the (extremely limited) chipset is nothing short of amazing. I have the Bridge Zone music in my head right now. The sound effects are also varied, each boing, kapow, clink, poof, greeted with a smile.
Level design is another strong point with this game. Fast levels are mixed with slow levels. Grounded levels intersperse with sky levels and it’s all seamless. The chase for Robotnik never gets dull and each encounter with him makes you want to chase him down even more. And the bonus levels. The lovely bonus levels. It wasn’t enough for the 8-bit team to make an excellent platformer but they’ve thrown in the pinball bonus levels as well which I actually prefer to the weird maze-esque bonus levels on the MD version.
Admittedly Sonic is very easy, even by 8-bit standards. It didn’t take me long to clock it but you know what? After completing it once I wanted to do it over and over. The same criticism could be levelled at the 16-bit version but the joy of Sonic isn’t the difficulty. Sonic is all about fun, hard and fast and then let’s do it all again.